1. There are two kinds of active SPF ingredients
Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, mineral and chemical filters. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin and maintaining stability in sunlight. The most common sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters. These products typically include a combination of two to six of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. A handful of products combine zinc oxide with chemical filters.
2. The current FDA approved ingredients are grandfathered in
The Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed evidence of potential hazards of sunscreen filters – instead it grandfathered in ingredients used in the late 1970s when it began to consider sunscreen safety.
3. Oxybenzone isn’t safe for everyone
Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006). In laboratory studies it is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012)
4. Mineral sunscreens are less harmful than chemical sunscreens
There is good evidence that little if any zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues. Thus, mineral sunscreens tend to rate better than chemical sunscreens in the EWG sunscreen database.
5. Methylisothiazolinone, an allergen, is found in 94 sunscreens
This year, EWG has found methylisothiazolinone is listed on the labels of 94 sunscreens including six marketed to children. The American Contact Dermatitis Society named methylisothiazolinone its “allergen of the year” in 2013.
6. Most sunscreens don’t provide protection against UVA rays
Many sunscreens don’t provide adequate protection from UVA rays. While higher-energy UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburns and pre-cancerous DNA mutations, lower-energy UVA rays cause tanning and more subtle damage. They penetrate deeper into skin tissue and are most responsible for generating free radicals – energized molecules that are highly reactive and can damage DNA and skin cells, promote skin aging, and cause skin cancer.
7. UV rays break down the effectiveness of sunscreens
UV rays can break down avobenzone, the most common UVA filter in American sunscreens, unless it is mixed with a stabilizer. Zinc oxide is the only other approved ingredient with strong UVA filtering, and titanium dioxide is moderately effective at protecting against UVA rays.
8. The European market offers superior sunscreen ingredients
European sunscreens appear to provide greater free radical protection because they can contain superior UVA filters. In tests, 12 European sunscreens averaged a free radical protection factor of 13, and the two most similar to U.S. products offered much less UVA and free radical protection (Wang 2011).
Between 2003 and 2010, sunscreen makers applied for FDA permission to use eight sun-filtering chemicals developed by European companies. Four of these – Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL – appear to be more effective than avobenzone, the most common UVA filter permitted by the FDA. The FDA’s failure to respond to these applications prompted Congress to pass the Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014 (FDA 2014). This act requires the FDA to review new applications for sunscreen active ingredients within 300 days.
Sunscreen Active Ingredient Breakdown
This table outlines human exposure and toxicity information for nine FDA-approved sunscreen chemicals.
EWG Hazard Score
Use in U.S. sunscreens
UV filters with higher toxicity concerns
|Oxybenzone||8||Widespread||Detected in nearly every American; found in mother’s milk; 1% to 9% skin penetration in lab studies||Acts like estrogen in the body; alters sperm production in animals; associated with endometriosis in women||Relatively high rates of skin allergy||N/A||Janjua 2004, Janjua 2008, Sarveiya 2004, Gonzalez 2006, Rodriguez 2006, Krause 2012|
|Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate)||6||Widespread||Found in mothers’ milk; less than 1% skin penetration in human and laboratory studies||Hormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies||Moderate rates of skin allergy||N/A||Krause 2012, Sarveiya 2004, Rodriguez, 2006, Klinubol 2008|
UV filters with moderate toxicity concerns
|Homosalate||4||Widespread||Found in mothers’ milk; skin penetration less than 1% in human and laboratory studies||Disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone||N/A||Toxic breakdown products||Krause 2012, Sarveiya 2004, SCCNFP 2006|
|Octisalate||3||Widespread; stabilizes avobenzone||Skin penetration in lab studies||N/A||Rarely reported skin allergy||N/A||Walters 1997, Shaw 2006 Singh 2007|
|Octocrylene||3||Widespread||Found in mothers’ milk; skin penetration in lab studies||N/A||Relatively high rates of skin allergy||N/A||Krause 2012, Bryden 2006, Hayden 2005|
UV filters with lower toxicity concerns
|Titanium Dioxide||2 (topical use), 6 (powder or spray)||Widespread||No finding of skin penetration||No evidence of hormone disruption||None||Inhalation concerns||Gamer 2006, Nohynek 2007, Wu 2009, Sadrieh 2010, Takeda 2009, Shimizu 2009, Park 2009, IARC 2006b|
|Zinc Oxide||2 (topical use), 4 (powder or spray)||Widespread; excellent UVA protection||Less than 0.01% skin penetration in human volunteers||No evidence of hormone disruption||None||Inhalation concerns||Gulson 2012, Sayes 2007, Nohynek 2007, SCCS 2012|
|Avobenzone||2||Widespread; best UVA protection of chemical filters||Very limited skin penetration||No evidence of hormone disruption||Breakdown product causes relatively high rates of skin allergy||Unstable in sunshine, must be mixed with stabilizers||Klinubol 2008, Bryden 2006, Hayden 2005, Montenegro 2008, Nash 2014|
|Mexoryl SX||2||Uncommon; pending FDA approval; offers good, stable UVA protection||Less than 0.16% skin penetration in human volunteers||No evidence of hormone disruption||Skin allergy is rare||N/A||Benech-Kieffer 2003, Fourtanier2008|
Six other ingredients approved in the U.S. are rarely used in sunscreens: benzophenone-4, benzophenone-8, menthyl anthranilate, PABA, Padimate O, and trolamine salicylate